MPIEP No. 26

Backlash: Unpacking the Concept’s Analytical Promise

Johanna Speyer

The increasing contestation of the liberal international order presents a daunting challenge both to practitioners and academics, within all sub-fields of political science and beyond. In these debates, backlash has become a new buzzword. Yet, its definition remains contested, which not only hampers the concept’s analytical power, but limits our understanding of the respective resistances, taking place on a national as well as international stage. Recently, Karen Alter and Michael Zürn have addressed this shortcoming. They define backlash as resistance against policies comprising (1) a retrograde objective, (2) extraordinary goals and tactics and (3) a threshold condition of entering mainstream public discourse. Yet, the concept of backlash arrived at thus proves hardly distinguishable from known concepts of resistance, particularly norm contestation. Based on a cross-disciplinary review of both the variegated use of the term backlash in colloquial and scientific language and established theoretical approaches to resistance in international relations, I develop a conceptualisation of backlash which highlights its specificities: backlash is an in-group resistance against institutions and their fundamental norms. This innovative understanding of backlash, based on institutionalist theory and constructivist norms research, opens up new angles for understanding the phenomenon, particularly its causes.

Keywords: backlash, contestation, institutionalism, norm theory, resistance, conceptualisation

Download article as PDF